Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The Savages" -- * * * 1/2

As a thoughtfully observed, honest, painful, character-based examination of the relationship between siblings, Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" belongs in the same category as "Margot at the Wedding," though Jenkins' film clearly has more affection for its characters and more of a desire to let the audience in. Alternately funny and sad-- the film never pretends there are easy answers about what to do when a family member reaches his later years-- Jenkins creates just slightly smarter versions of characters we feel like we already know, and equips the proceedings with a hopefulness that feels genuinely earned, not just an inevitability. With a stark sense of realism and extremely sharp dialogue, "The Savages" is most reminiscent of the humanism evident in Alexander Payne's last two films, "Sideways" and "About Schmidt" (Jenkins is married to Jim Taylor, Payne's regular collaborator).

Opening with a semi-surreal sequence of senior citizen women dancing in blue unitards-- indicating it's going to be an odder film than it actually is-- "The Savages" is the story of two siblings, Wendy (Laura Linney) and John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who must reconnect and really grow up when their oft-neglectful father (Philip Bosco) begins to die of vascular dementia.Wendy, a self-medicating East Village playwright having an affair with her 52-year-old married neighbor, spends most of her time applying-- and getting rejected-- for grants, while John, a standoffish, intellectual college professor, has spent the last few years writing a book on Brecht and putting off committing to his Polish girlfriend (Cara Seymour) whose lapsing visa is about to end their relationship. After their father's girlfriend of 20 years dies while buying cosmetics and he begins writing in feces on the wall, the two must face their inevitable responsibility, and fly to Sun City, Arizona to begin looking for a place for him to live out his remaining time.

With her main competitors considered to be Keira Knightley ("Atonement"), Ellen Page ("Juno"), Julie Christie ("Away From Her"), Marion Cotillard ("La Vie En Rose") and Cate Blanchett ("The Golden Age" or "I'm Not There"), allow me to begin beating my drum now for Laura Linney to win Best Actress this year. Linney may be the finest actress working today-- aside from maybe The Meryl Streep-- and manages to be truly great even with the most mediocre of material (e.g.: "The Nanny Diaries"). With Wendy, Jenkins gives Linney what may be the best role of her career, and the actress is truly a joy to watch every second of this film. As our true leading character-- the story is really following her, not John-- Wendy is imbued with a substantial complexity by Linney, and our sympathies always lie with her, even though she does more than a few things that would make us turn on anyone else. She brilliantly plays the more emotional moments-- her scene expressing her guilt at what she and John are doing to their father is devastating-- as well as delivering the comic dialogue with a hilarious precision few actresses possess. I doubt anyone else could deliver a line as simple as "You're an idiot" as brilliantly as Linney does here and her subtly cutting insults to John register as some of the best lines in the film ("Yeah, everyone's really itching for a book about Bertolt Brecht this holiday season"). Though she's not hiding behind prosthetics, or affecting a "challenging" accent, this is the most complete performance by an actress likely to be seen this year (Independent Spirit Award snub be damned), and I hope she finally gets the recognition she's long deserved.

In the first role he signed on for after winning his Oscar, Hoffman is also wonderful and understated as John, whose teaching specialty is "theatre of social unrest." An actor who never fails to impress and seems to savor dialogue like no other, Hoffman gives a performance that is just as importantly illustrated via body language. Averse to any sort of responsibility or intimacy (note his physical discomfort during many of his scenes with Linney) and the sort of pretentious fellow who listens to "The Threepenny Opera" while he drives, John still cries when his girlfriend cooks him eggs, and whenever we're about to classify him as indifferent, Hoffman will give us something to chew on to make us think otherwise. Midway through, he gives a particularly impassioned monologue about nursing homes as places for people just waiting to die that provides the perfect counterbalance to his subdued nature through much of the film. 2007 serves as a reminder that with actors like Day-Lewis and Norton only working every few years, we're lucky to have an actor as skilled as Hoffman working consistently, delivering three powerhouse performances in the span of one movie season.

Bosco has arguably the most difficult role here, alternately making us sad and uncomfortable whenever he's onscreen. It's not easy to watch someone in this state, especially if you've had the displeasure of seeing a loved one in a similar position, but it's to Bosco's credit that he never devolves into caricature and remains painfully realistic. It's also worth noting that he never really gets redeemed, making him the saddest character in the film-- he has a moment involving his hearing aid that's brilliant and heartbreaking in its simplicity. Much of his material involves things like filling out funeral arrangements, having his pants fall down on the way to an airplane bathroom or shouting incoherently; it's not pleasant stuff to watch, but it's really an excellent performance.

Jenkins' screenplay has its shortfalls, but for what it is, it's nearly perfect. It's remarkable how she completely fleshes out these characters in the short time we spend with them, and she's got a way with dialogue that's amazingly funny and truthful at the same time ("We are not gonna need to go and find [dad]... We're not in a Sam Shepard play"). There's a very funny, bleak sense of dark comedy on display here, as well as a genuine affection for the characters. Its cleverness starts with the "Peter Pan" referencing names of the main characters (John and Wendy are Savage, not Darling), and ends with tongue-in-cheek self-referencing (at one point, a character asks about their writing, "You didn't think it was just middle-class whining?").

If the screenplay has a fault, it's that it succeeds more at painting superb individual moments than creating an engaging storyline. But given the nature of the proceeds, that's okay, even if things feel a bit shapeless at times. Though everyone will have their favorite moments (mine was a "Jazz Singer" movie night at a nursing home where things get a bit awkward when Al Jolson slaps on blackface), there are no wacky set pieces a la "Little Miss Sunshine"... everything is character-based and feels like real life. Late in the film, John is seen standing in front of a chalkboard illustrating the differences between standard writing and Brecht; the board points out the former puts emphasis on 'Feeling' and 'Plot,' while Brecht is more focused on 'Thinking' and 'Narrative.' Those are very much the principles Jenkins employs here.

Supposedly, Fox Searchlight is putting most of their awards campaign money, time and energy behind "Juno," but despite that movie being more of an overt crowd-pleaser, I'm starting to get the feeling "The Savages" might be their strongest shot at a Best Picture nomination. It concerns a subject matter close to the forefront of of the elder Academy members' minds, but has a hopeful enough undercurrent (unlike the similarly-themed "About Schmidt," which supposedly just made them depressed and uncomfortable). It's also a film that lives and dies by its terrific performances and writing, and it aces both departments. With a careful release pattern, Searchlight has the potential to build steady word-of-mouth and want-to-see factors based on reviews and top-10 lists. It seems Oscar contenders/predictions have been varying by the hour this season, but as of right now, I think "The Savages" will be one of the final 5.

For a film about grown siblings looking for a place for their patriarch to most comfortably die, Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" would deserve commendation merely for not being monumentally depressing. However, Jenkins' first film in a decade (her last was the underappreciated "Slums of Beverly Hills") not only avoids being emotionally draining, it succeeds at making you laugh loud and often without ever abandoning the tremendously sad reality of the situation. The subject matter will make it a tough sell, but the exceedingly clever, perceptive and bittersweet "Savages" will quite possibly emerge as the most unlikely audience-pleaser of the holiday season.

"The Savages" opens in 4 theaters in New York and Los Angeles (2 each) today, and will very slowly, incrementally expand throughout December and January, much like "Sideways." 9 theaters on December 7th, 50 theaters on December 21st, 100+ on Christmas Day, and nationwide on January 18th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: I think Best Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay (Tamara Jenkins) are total locks here, but if the film scores a Best Picture nom, which I think is likely, Best Supporting Actor (Philip Bosco) and Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) could conceivably follow.


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